Wednesday, May 19, 2010

HOLY ROLLERS offers Hasidim, drugs and a fine performance by Jesse Eisenberg

The Hasidic community, when shown to us by filmmakers, whether in the U.S. (A Price Above Rubies) or Israel (the recent Eyes Wide Open) is usually given short shrift.  Because the Hasidim are fundamentalists who lead and preach strictured lives, while filmmaker are artists (good or bad, it does not matter) usually pushing for as much freedom as possible, it should not surprise us that the latter would take a dim view of the former.  This film-maker tradition alone makes HOLY ROLLERS, the new movie from writer Antonio Macia and director Kevin Asch (shown below), something different.

How different?  Well, I came out of the screening feeling -- despite its fundamentalist values -- kindly disposed toward the family of our hero, Sam, wonderfully played, as usual, by Jesse Eisenberg (shown below).  Sure, his dad (essayed with quiet grace and sadness by Mark Ivanir) conforms to the religion (mom, too: the underused Elizabeth Marvel), but what else is new?  Even Sam's prospective arranged-marriage to a young woman (Stella Keitel), for whom the young man  actually pines, doesn't look so bad in this case.

Then drug trafficking rears its tempting head and we, Sam and the movie are off and running back and forth to Europe, along with a smart, funny trafficker (the firing-on-all-ten-cylinders Danny Abeckaser, below left) and his blond bimbo-esque girlfriend (the alternately sleazy/sweet Ari Graynor, below right).  That the girlfriend is actually softer and more vulnerable that we initially suspect adds to the movie's appeal, as well as to its plot.

Though neither Asch nor Macia are anything approaching stylists, they get their job done well enough, providing charm, humor and suspense as needed.  Certain members of the critical community seem to have wanted more from this movie -- more violence, more sex, more Hasidim-bashing, and in general, more at stake.  Yet the story, based on actual events that occurred back the in the 1990s, would seem to be quite small scale. A lot of Ecstasy was run but no lives were lost, and the movie adheres nicely to this scale.

And in Mr. Eisenberg (shown at right, above, with Justin Bartha, who plays the next-door-neighbor who recruits for the mini-drug cartel), it has a splendid young actor who seems, within the confines of his very memorable face, capable of just about anything.  In the three films that have opened with a week of each other, he has shown three distinct sides: a disciple intent on serving and protecting his "master" in The Living Wake; a college student tempted by the charm and wiles of Michael Douglas in Solitary Man, whose character -- even in this small role -- grows noticeably in the course of the film; and here, as a smart boy who connects with the seamier side of Capitalism and makes it work better than anyone expected for him and his boss.

Of course, pitting drug running against family -- even a fundamentalist family -- will skew most viewers toward the latter.  And, as fundamentalists go, you could do a lot worse than the family seen here.  

Holy Rollers opens Friday, May 21, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and the AMC Loews 84th Street Six, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark. The following week it expands into other cities and venues. You can find the list of nationwide playdates here.

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